Island Style

13 October, Dobo.

Last time I was in Ambon, it had been something of a shock. Coming from Bali, the chaos and pollution stood out, and the attention that the locals paid to foreigners was almost alienating. Now, though, I knew what to expect, and could deal with the constant desire for attention that so many Ambonese had. “Hallo Mister!” everyone said (they will even say this to European-looking women, as I found out later).

I spent a long time wandering around Ambon, going as far south as a large petroleum storage facility that was surrounded by quiet neighborhoods that might almost qualify as suburbs if they weren’t packed together so closely. I tried to find a way to walk back up along the shore to the Pasar Mardika, but one sad thing about Ambon is that the shoreline isn’t accessible in most places—it is blocked by warehouses and industrial facilities the whole way, so to move north-south one has to wend through Ambon’s maze of streets, which take unexpected turns. The downtown is flat enough that there are few points of reference to use for navigation; the walls that rise alongside every street block even the radio towers and steeples.

Eventually I found the Pasar Mardika, or rather the “mall” near it, and started looking for a few supplies in the tight burrows of goods on the lower floor: a wallet, a hat, and a new SIM card for my Indonesian phone. It was impossible to avoid making friends in this situation, since I spoke decent enough Indonesian to answer people’s questions about why I was there. These friends are what it takes to get things done in Ambon—the more numbers you have in your cell phone, the easier it is to do things. People who had only known me for ten minutes offered to help if I ever got into trouble, or sometimes offered me entry into less open parts of Ambonese culture, like drinking sopi.

The next day we were on our way to Dobo in a small, quarter-full twin turboprop plane that looked literally rough around the edges. There were two stewardesses in impeccable makeup and uniforms, who looked out of place on this particular vehicle. Cigarette smoke seeped out under the door of the cockpit, and Emilie pointed out the bulkhead where the cockroaches lived. The pilot gunned the engines abruptly, and as they pulsed and vibrated the cabin, we tore off the runway and banked over Pulau Ambon towards the Kei islands, our first stop. We landed briefly in Tual, Kei’s capital, on an airstrip that looked like it may have been left over from the Second World War, and then we in the air again. The plane was almost empty by this point. It was luxurious in its own way.

Then Dobo. We approached over coral reefs and small islets, and touched down shakily on the airstrip, which still has the carcass of an old Merpati plane, predecessor to our craft, moldering by the tiny terminal. I’ve heard a story that Merpati, Indonesia’s original national airline, never paid for fuel, and so at some point most airports began refusing to fill their planes. As a result, the story is that there are Merpati planes stranded at airports all over Southeast Asia. The story with this one is probably simpler; I suspect it just broke down and couldn’t be repaired in Dobo, so now it serves as a shelter from the sun on hot days.

Emilie had arranged for us to stay in a house close to the airport owned by two other missionary-linguists, who stay in Dobo six months out of the year. They are away right now, so we had the place, complete with two part time pembantu (“helpers”) to ourselves. It felt oddly colonial. Mama Denis and Mama Au took care of the laundry and cleaning, and would act as caretakers for the house while we were away. In fact, it’s very common to employ pembantu in many parts of Indonesia—most middle-class families have one or two. They are usually part of the family. Still, I’m not used to it. We don’t have much in common, and they’re rather shy, so we haven’t talked much. I want to find a way to change that.

My old friend Sonny Djonler met us at the airport; he would be Ross’s guide to Batulei. Before we’d had a chance to get settled we were deep in a conversation with him, talking about the history of his family, and their connections to Ujir and Batulei. Sonny has really had a remarkable life; he studied aquaculture, speaks English and Japanese fluently, and knows a tremendous amount about Aru. Although he’s well-educated enough to succeed pretty much anywhere, he’s chosen to stay in Aru and try to improve the lives of people here, as well as create a sustainable business. Everyone who knows him starts talking about how smart he is. He’s the kind of person who makes anthropological work possible, and I’m very glad that Ross will have him as a companion and guide in Batulei. If the government officials here were as competent and honest as Sonny, Aru would be a very different place.

Emilie and Ross talked with Sonny for over an hour, recording most of the conversation on a digital audio recorder. It would take a few days to arrange a boat to take Sonny and Ross to Batulei. Meanwhile there was still much preparation to do in Dobo. First on the agenda was getting wi-fi for the house, and then food. A local engineer named Boy had set up the wi-fi system in our house, but he wasn’t there in his shop when we visited, so we left word for him and then walked to the waterfront market, which demonstrates the truth of Dobo’s reputation as a trading center. You can buy all the basic supplies of life there, from vegetables to rubber boots (Ross got a sharp camouflage pair to facilitate walking around the intertidal zone). I tried bargaining for vegetables, but that may not be a custom here, because I wasn’t very successful at it. Still, all the produce was very cheap: the supplies for a stir-fry for three cost around $5. Ross also bought a cooking pot, some medicine, powdered milk, canned goods, and other supplies for his adventure.

Thus ended our first day in Dobo. I’d barely had time to think. I sat down at the kitchen table with a can of Bintang and my pocketknife, and started peeling shallots and garlic for the stir-fry. Then the power went out. Welcome to Dobo!

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One Response to Island Style

  1. Mama Kres says:

    The Merpati plane crashed, and was never hauled away. Maybe a little reminder to not falsify the cargo and luggage weight manifests. 😉
    It is a hard adjustment for most Americans to have house help because it makes us feel a bit higher status than we perceive ourselves to be. In Indonesia having house help is society’s way of the more well-off contributing to the welfare of the entire community by hiring those who would be destitute without such employment. They often also receive more benefits than their wages from their employer, and the relationship is often more familial than employer-employee. If they hung around the house waiting for you, hoping to help you it was out of a desire to be good hosts to an outsider, and also to serve the “friend of their boss” well. Actually, Mama Au is a dear friend and she would want to make sure that you were well taken care of out of loyalty to us. Mama Denis is a young widow with five children, and her other kin have few resources to help her and her children, so her boss helps them out.

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